That’s a wrap for the Beijing Winter Olympics, a two week event held inside a COVID-19 “closed loop”, strictly enforced by China’s authoritarian government.
The terrarium of a Winter Games that has been Beijing 2022 ended on Sunday, capping an unprecedented Asian Olympic trifecta and sending the planet’s most global sporting event off to the West for the foreseeable future.
The Games will not return to Asia until at least 2030. These third straight Games in Asia, after PyeongChang in 2018 and the delayed Tokyo Summer Games six months ago, were also the second pandemic Games.
The 16,000 athletes and other international visitors who spent the entire time segregated from the host city behind tall chain-link fences couldn’t help but see the countless signs trumpeting unremitting iterations of the Olympic slogan: “Together for a Shared Future.”
It was weird. It was messy and, at the same time, sterile. It was controlled and calibrated in ways only Xi Jinping’s China could pull off.
And it was sequestered in a “bubble” that kept participants and the city around them – and, by extension, the sporadically watching world – at arm’s length.
The 2022 Games were controversial from the moment the IOC awarded them to Beijing, the frequently snowless capital of a country without much of a winter sports tradition.
Geopolitical tensions also shadowed these Games, with Russia’s buildup of troops along its border with Ukraine spurring fears of war in Europe even as the “Olympic Truce” supposedly kicked in.
The unease didn’t stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from showing up at the opening ceremony after meeting privately with Xi.
He waved from a luxury box to Russian athletes unable to compete under their nation’s flag as part of sanctions imposed for a massive state-sponsored doping operation uncovered after the 2014 Sochi Games that Putin hosted.
However by many mechanical measures, these Games were a success. They were, indeed, quite safe – albeit in the carefully modulated way that authoritarian governments always do best. The local volunteers, as is usually the case, were delightful, helpful and engaging.
There was snow, most of it fake, some of it real. The venues – many of them harvested from the 2008 Olympics – performed to expectations.
TV ratings were down, but streaming viewership was up: By Saturday, NBC in the USA had streamed 3.5 billion minutes from Beijing, compared to 2.2 billion in 2018.
There were no major unexpected logistical problems, only the ones created deliberately to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the country where it first emerged.
And stemmed it seemed to be. As of Saturday, the segregated system that effectively turned Beijing into two cities – one sequestered, one proceeding very much as normal – had produced only 463 positive tests among thousands of visitors entering the bubble since January 23. Not surprisingly, the state-controlled media loved this.
Look deeper, though, and a different story emerges about these Games.
Internationally, many critiqued them as the “authoritarian Olympics” and denounced the IOC for holding them in concert with a government accused of gross human rights violations.
Several Western governments boycotted by not sending any official delegations, although they sent athletes.
For its part, China denied such allegations, as it typically does, and featured a Uyghur as part of its slate of Olympic torch-carriers for the opening ceremony on February 4.
Then, of course, there were, again, the Russians. And doping. Again.
The 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for using a banned heart medication. The result wasn’t announced until after she’d won gold as part of the team competition, even though the sample was taken weeks earlier.
She was cleared to compete in the individual discipline, with the ruling that as a minor she had protected status. But Valieva, heavily favoured to win, fell several times during her free skate routine, landing her fourth place and prompting a cold reception from her embattled coach, Eteri Tutberidze.
Valieva’s Russian teammates took gold and silver, but on a night of drama that seemed destined to define these 2022 Games, even the winners were in tears.
So here we sit eight years after Sochi when Russia chose to cheat the Games with doping, back in the same boat with Russia consuming world media when the IOC chose to allow a skater on a banned substance to compete via a loop hole.
The affair produced one possible legacy for Beijing – Valieva’s ordeal has inspired talk of raising the minimum age for Olympic skaters from 15 to 17 or 18.
Meanwhile, star American skier Mikaela Shiffrin also came to Beijing with high expectations, only to see them dashed when she failed to finish three races.
She left without any medals and a hurricane of online abuse from trolls who couldn’t even click into a set of skis.
On the other hand, China swelled with pride, and its social media swelled with comments, as Eileen Gu, an America-born freestyle skier who chose to compete for China, her mother’s native country, became an international superstar.
Her three medals – two gold, one silver – set a record for her sport, and adulation for Gu literally broke the Chinese internet at one point, briefly crashing the servers of Sina Weibo, the massive Twitter-like network.
Snowboarding’s best-known rider, American Shaun White, called it a career after finishing fourth in the halfpipe in his fifth Olympics and the world commiserated and celebrated his sport defining career.
Norway, a country whose total population of 5 million is less than one half of one percent of the host country’s, led the medal count with a record haul of 16 gold. But there was one gold not won for Jarl Magnus Riiber.
The four time nordic combined skiing world champion was locked up in isolation rooms after testing positive to Covid-19. When he did emerge, albeit without training on the Olympic track, he failed to follow the correct track and lost any chance of podium glory.
Inconsistency abound (and no we’re not talking about “that” judging of the men’s snowboard slopestyle), snowboarder Julia Marino was told to cover the PRADA logo on her snowboard as it was not compliant with approved sports sponsors, despite competing with the board in an earlier event where she won silver.
The women ski jumpers had their own controversy when five competitors were disqualified from the mixed team event because it was deemed the pants of their ski suits were two centimetres too big giving them an unfair wind resistance advantage.
Yet as Katharina Althaus of Germany said: “(Ski authority) FIS destroyed women’s ski jumping. I have been checked so many times in 11 years of ski jumping, and I have never been disqualified once. I know my suit was compliant.”
Despite all the controversies and strict COVID-19 conditions, Australia’s Winter Olympians say there was still a lot to like about the Beijing Games – who can forget the comraderie in the womens snowboard slopestyle final?
The COVID-19 bubble in Beijing was at times bizarre but also a blessing for the Australian Winter Olympic team.
Chinese Olympic staff dressed head to toe in hazmat suits including plastic gloves, shoes encased inside the ensemble, and masks in place behind plastic face shields became the norm. There were daily PCR tests for athletes, officials and journalists and the smell of hand sanitiser and disinfectant in the air throughout the 17-day Games.
All parties were locked in a “closed loop” of competition venues, three villages, hotels and press centres, with the only sight of the real Beijing through an Olympic bus or train window.
Those who failed China’s zero tolerance approach to the pandemic – more than 500 including 183 athletes and team officials – endured a different view of the Games from an isolation hotel.
With some locked in for up to 14 days, their sour, stressful and frustrating experiences were among the lowlights of the Games.
But Australia’s chef de mission Geoff Lipshut said the athlete team embraced a different kind of Olympics as they reaped a record number of medals.
Learning from experiences in Tokyo last year, the AOC provided athletes with their own chef, who cooked all meals so they could avoid the village mess hall, while a coffee barista was flown in from Brisbane.
Even Jakara Anthony’s gold medal celebrations were done in-house, although party numbers dwindled as the Games went on, with athletes flown out of China 48 hours after their last event.
Apart from curler Tahli Gill, who in her recovery from the virus produced positive and negative tests, and alpine skier Katie Parker, who had to delay her arrival due to COVID-19 and rely on a second test to compete, Australian athletes remained unaffected.
The sad absence of fans in the stands was noticeable, but again there was upside.
Young athletes including Anthony and bronze medal-winning snowboarder Tess Coady said that without family present, the Games had the normality of a World Cup event, which took off some of the intense Olympic pressure.
Though for some, the best thing about the Beijing Winter Olympics is that it’s in Italy again in four years time.
*AAP authors Ted Anthony and Melissa Woods